Candidate Barack Obama promised to end the time-honored American practice of appointing ambassadors who have no experience in foreign policy, but President Obama has completely ignored that promise, appointing fundraisers to dozens of ambassadorships all over the world.
Today, the State Department revealed that another fundraiser turned ambassador ran her embassy into the ground ... only to return to fundraising and leave the State Department to pick up the pieces.
According to a new State Department inspector general's report on the U.S. Embassy in the Bahamas, Ambassador Nicole Avant presided over "an extended period of dysfunctional leadership and mismanagement, which has caused problems throughout the embassy" since she was appointed by the president in 2009. Prior to being America's envoy in the Caribbean, Avant was Southern California finance co-chairwoman of Obama's presidential campaign and vice president of Interior Music Publishing.
According to her glowingly positive Wikipedia page, Avant spent her time in the Bahamas "focused on five priority initiatives: Education, Alternative Energy, Economic and Small Business Development, Women's Empowerment and Raising awareness of the challenges facing people with disabilities."
But according to the State Department's internal investigation, Avant was away from the embassy an inordinate amount of time -- mainly shuttling back and forth to her home in Los Angeles -- and when she was in town, she worked from her residence most of the day.
Avant was absent from the embassy 276 days between September 2009 and November 2011, including 102 "personal" days and 77 "work travel" days to the United States, of which only 23 were on official orders.
"Her extensive travel out of country and preference to work from the Ambassador's residence for a significant portion of the work day contributed to a perception of indifference," the report states. "The frequent absences of the Ambassador contributed to poor mission management."
Avant was out of touch partly because she didn't interact often with the State Department or anyone else in Washington, according to the inspector general. She left that to her deputy chief of mission, whom the report identified as also being poor at management and administration.
"The Ambassador had not had frequent policy-level interaction with the Department or other Washington agencies. At the beginning of her tenure, she relied unduly on her former DCM to attend to day-to-day contacts with the desk and other offices in the Department," says the report. "Interviews in Washington likewise revealed that the front office of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and other Washington agencies were not in regular contact with the Ambassador about the conduct of her mission. This lack of regular contact contributed to the Ambassador's sense of isolation from the Department."
Avant did take several steps to establish the embassy's equal employment opportunity program -- but not until the inspector general's visit. The embassy's program for young Foreign Service officers was neglected, critical security upgrades were not made, and the embassy paid rent on a vacant office for two years.
One might think there aren't important issues to deal with at a tropical post like the Bahamas. But the IG begs to differ, and made clear that the 154 American and 61 locally hired staff need good leadership.
"The Bahamas is a critical partner in ongoing efforts to ensure the security of the south-east flank of the United States. As it fights drug and human trafficking with U.S. and international support, the Bahamas seeks to maintain its status as a global financial center and as an important tourist destination," the report states.
Under Avant's tenure, it goes on, "cables written in the past year show little political reporting or analysis on international crime, drug smuggling, and illegal migration or on prevention of terrorism."
The inspectors visited the embassy in September and October of 2011. Avant resigned in November.
Since resigning, Avant has been active on the campaign trail. According to a Jan. 31 White House pool report, she joined Michelle Obama at a Beverly Hills residence for a fundraiser along with her husband, Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Saranados, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steve Bing, Quincy Jones, Harvey Weinstein, and other celebrities.
A Feb. 15 pool report spotted her dining with Obama at a $35,800 per plate dinner that included George Clooney, Jim Belushi, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa.
Avant is only the latest fundraiser cum ambassador who caused trouble for the boss. Fundraiser/Ambassador Howard Gutman caused a controversy in Belgium last year when he made statements appearing to blame Israel for anti-Semitism.
And fundraiser/ambassador Cynthia Stroum left the U.S. Embassy in Luxembourg in a state of dysfunction after creating an environment that was ""aggressive, bullying, hostile and intimidating," according to a Feb. 2011 State Department investigation.
If the Obama administration is looking for a new envoy to the Bahamas who can right the ship, your humble Cable guy would like to put forth himself for the assignment ... we promise not to use up our personal days.
House Foreign Affairs Committee member Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) has caused an uproar in Pakistan by introducing a congressional resolution calling for self-determination in the restive province of Baluchistan. But the 12-term California representative is unfazed by the criticism: If the Pakistanis don't like it, that's their problem, he told The Cable in an interview today.
"The purpose of the resolution was to create a much-needed dialogue about Pakistan and Baluchistan, and that's what it's done, so that's very nice," he said. "It's important to get over that phase where people are going ballistic and start getting serious discussion about an issue that's been ignored but shouldn't be ignored."
Rohrabacher said the Baluchistan issue and the human rights violations there have been ignored in Washington out of a fear of offending the Pakistani establishment, but that strategy isn't working.
"It's one of those issues that's been ignored as to not upset the Pakistanis because they are fragile friends," he said. "Well, they're not fragile friends, they are hard-core, two-faced enemies of the United States."
Rohrabacher isn't shy about his anger with the Pakistani government, its attitude toward the United States, and its actions related to America's war against the Taliban and al Qaeda. In fact, the discovery that Osama bin Laden was hiding for years in the Pakistani military town of Abbottabad was direct motivation for his Baluchistan initiative, he said.
"What made me really determined to get involved to the point where I was willing to author resolutions like this was when Osama bin Laden was discovered in an area which made it clear that Pakistanis had for eight years taken billions in U.S. foreign aid while giving safe haven to the monster that slaughtered 3,000 Americans on 9/11," he said. "At that point I felt, no more walking on egg shells around Pakistan."
Baluchistan is the largest of Pakistan's four provinces and is home to about 8 million people, many from the Baloch tribes, which have Persian and Kurdish origins. Nationalist movements there have fought the Pakistani government intermittently for independence over the past decades, with the most recent skirmishes in 2006.
There's no love lost for Rohrabacher on the Pakistani side of the relationship, either. There were street protests against the resolution and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said, "This resolution violates our sovereignty and we condemn it." A visiting U.S. congressional delegation in Islamabad had to distance itself from Rohrabacher's resolution.
"I can see why the prime minister of Pakistan wouldn't fully understand why people in various countries -- especially elected officials -- are free to comment on any policies they see fit in any country they see fit," Rohrabacher said. "That's what freedom is all about, but perhaps that's why they don't understand it."
One theory that became popular in the Pakistani press following Rohrabacher's Feb. 8 hearing on the resolution was that Rohrabacher was working with the CIA to try to pressure Pakistan to allow U.S. intelligence agencies to put listening posts in Baluchistan aimed at Iran.
"Anyone who believes that is totally out of touch with reality," Rohrabacher responded. "I've had no discussions with anyone in the CIA about this whatsoever and my guess is that if I did, they would be doing somersaults trying to prevent me from doing this."
In fact, he didn't even bother to confer with the Obama administration about the resolution at all, he said, and has not heard from any administration officials.
"It was my resolution and not theirs," he said of the administration. "Unlike our friends in Pakistan, they understand that in a democracy people elected to the legislative branch have the right to propose any legislation they want. I can see why the Pakistani government wouldn't understand that."
Rohrabacher compared the struggle of the people of Baluchistan to the struggle of the American colonies against the British Empire. "Like in the United States, where we gave a declaration of independence, we have a right to a country separate from Great Britain. That's what self-determination is," he said.
Beyond Baluchistan, Rohrabacher's top priority is preventing Pakistan from influencing the Afghanistan reconciliation talks to the benefit of the Taliban. He promises to fight giving U.S. aid to Pakistan if that's the case.
"The most important thing now is not to permit Pakistan to think they can do anything they want and there will never be any repercussions and they can side with any enemy of the West and still think we're going to pour money into their pockets," he said. "That ain't gonna happen."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
The first even "Friends of Syria" meeting Friday in Tunis will focus on ensuring humanitarian access and a possible short-term ceasefire, according to State Department officials traveling with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in London.
Clinton had several meetings with European and Arab leaders on the sidelines of the London conference on Somalia to prepare for "Friends of Syria" event, where dozens of countries will meet to determine what steps the international community can take to bring relief to the communities under siege from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
"There is a lot of concern, of course, about what's happening in places like Homs, the horrific conditions in which people [find themselves], and how do we get the right type of humanitarian and medical assistance [into Syria] that people need," a State Department official told reporters traveling with Clinton in London.
"And [there is] general agreement that while all of us have been working with various humanitarian well-known organizations, U.N. organizations on the ground, that the real challenge is the access issue. And it is going to be up to the Syrian government to be -- the Syrian authorities, the Syrian regime -- to respond to the international community's real commitment to provide the type of assistance."
The Tunis meeting should result in concrete proposal for speeding humanitarian and medical assistance to the civilians inside Syria, but all would require the agreement of the Assad regime, the official said.
The second main focus of the Tunis meeting will be to coalesce around a plan to transition toward democracy in Syria. Members of the Syrian National Council, the opposition group composed mostly of people living outside Syria, has its own plan for transition that it will present at the Tunis meeting. That plan and the Arab League backed plan for transition are not mutually exclusive, the State Department official said.
"Everybody is backing the Arab League transition plan who's at the conference tomorrow, but it's incumbent upon the Syrian National Council to talk about how they would translate that transition plan into action on the ground and for them to articulate it in a compelling way that's comprehensible, understandable to Syrians inside and out," said the official.
The third focus of the Tunis meeting will be how the international community can coordinate sanctions to bring maximum pressure and isolation on the Assad regime.
How does the "Friends of Syria" group plan to incentivize Assad to go along with any of these ideas? According to a report by the Associated Press, Clinton and the other leaders are considering issuing Assad a 72-hour ultimatum whereby he would have to agree to a ceasefire and grant humanitarian access or face as yet unspecified additional penalties. The ceasefire could be granted in 2 hour per day increments, as the International Committee for the Red Cross has suggested.
"Clinton met Thursday in London with foreign ministers and senior officials from about a dozen countries, including Britain, France, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates," the AP reported.
Representatives from Syria's internal opposition groups will not be at the conference. One administration official told The Cable that Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford had urged in internal discussions that opposition council leaders from Damascus and Homs be included in the Tunis meeting but ultimately they were not invited.
The Obama administration has focused on interacting with the external opposition and avoiding direct contact with the Free Syrian Army, which is working closely with the local rebel councils inside Syria, the administration official said.
But the State Department official speaking with reporters in London said the administration was confident that the SNC was adequately representing the array of opposition groups inside and outside Syria.
"It's a very complicated political situation that they face that the Syrian opposition members, whether they're inside or outside, have a hard time communicating with each other given the restrictions that are put on to the -- onto the Internet, onto movement, given the horrific conditions under which people are living and operating inside Syria," the State Department official said. "The opposition has done a fairly good job of reaching out, being able to synthesize views from across Syria. And I think that all of us are favorably impressed with the direction in which they're moving. But we'll hear from them tomorrow in terms of specific needs."
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich may be slipping in the polls, but he will deliver a speech at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference in Washington, a spokesman for AIPAC confirmed today.
Gingrich's speech will be on the morning on March 5, one day after U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the conference and before the speech of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will speak that evening. Obama and Netanyahu will meet in the Oval Office that day.
Last December, Gingrich made news when he called the Israeli-Palestinian peace process "delusional" and called the Palestinians an "invented" people. He also said the Palestinian Authority and Hamas share "an enormous desire to destroy Israel."
"If I'm even-handed between a civilian democracy that obeys the rule of law and a group of terrorists who are firing missiles every day, that's not even-handed. That's favoring the terrorists," Gingrich said.
Gingrich's campaign has benefited from more than $10 million in donations to a Gingrich-supporting Super PAC from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a close ally of Netanyahu and owner of the daily Israel Hayom.
In addition to Gingrich, Obama, and Netanyahu, the current list of confirmed speakers now includes: Israeli President Shimon Peres, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA), President of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Jane Harman, CNN Contributor Paul Begala, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor Liz Cheney, editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol, and political analyst for NBC News Mike Murphy.
Kristol is on the board of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group that has sponsored several ad campaigns accusing Obama of being "not pro-Israel." The group is also the only Israel-focused advocacy organization to have formed a SuperPAC in the run up to the 2012 election. The other two board members of ECI are Gary Bauer, who today endorsed Rick Santorum, and Rachel Abrams, the wife of former NSC official Elliott Abrams, and the author of the controversial Israel-focused blog "Bad Rachel."
WILLIAM PHILPOTT/AFP/Getty Images
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) is on his way back from Russia after meeting with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in anticipation of a coming congressional debate on giving Russia Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) status.
The visit was closely coordinated with the Obama administration, according to a Baucus aide. Baucus is anticipating a debate over granting Russia PNTR, which would also require the repeal of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik law, sometime this spring or summer. By then, Russia will be a full member of the World Trade Organization and U.S. businesses would be disadvantaged from doing business in Russia if the PNTR issue is not resolved, according to Baucus.
But the Baucus camp was keen to stress that the senator's focus went well beyond economic access for American companies.
"Baucus wanted to learn more and prepare himself for this year's debate to prepare himself and other members as he did last year with Colombia before the free trade debate," his aide told The Cable. "Baucus definitely stressed democracy and human rights concerns with Medvedev as he did with several other senior Russian officials on the trip. He also met at length with civil society activists -- democracy, human rights and environmental activists -- as well as another meeting with leading transparency and anti-corruption advocates."
Some GOP offices want to link the issues of human rights and corruption in Russia to the granting of PNTR status. Those offices are pushing for passage of Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2011, named for the anti-corruption lawyer who was allegedly tortured and died in a Russian prison exactly two years ago today.
These Republicans -- who include House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) -- want passage of the Magnitsky bill to be the cost of repealing the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment, which prevents Russia from getting PNTR status. The administration would prefer not to link Magnitsky to this trade status, because it would cause the Russians to take retaliatory measures against the U.S. in other areas of bilateral cooperation. Administration officials are proposing a fund to support a new democracy and human rights foundation in Russia instead, but Republicans are cool on that idea.
The Russians staunchly oppose the Magnitsky bill. In fact, the Russian government is moving forward with the prosecution of Magnitsky on criminal tax charges, even though he is dead.
In a press release before his trip, Baucus argued that granting PNTR status for Russia could result in a doubling of U.S. exports to Russia, which now stand at about $9 billion per year. He also argued that a package of concessions Russia made to the United States before being invited to join the WTO would result in benefits for U.S. animal and agricultural industries and will result in Russia tamping down its own domestic agricultural subsidies.
"Opening doors overseas in countries like Russia will propel our economic recovery forward and create jobs across the United States," Baucus said. "Holding Russia to its promises as it enters the WTO and seeking a greater share of the Russian market is a one-way economic benefit for the United States and an absolute no-brainer."
Baucus' home state of Montana is a major beef exporter and Russia is currently the fifth largest importer of American beef. Baucus has touted Russia's agreement to reduce beef tariffs as part of its WTO accession.
On Feb. 20, in addition to Medvedev, Baucus met with First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Russia's top official on economic and trade issues, and Minister of Economic Development Elvira Nabiullina. On Monday, Baucus also met with Russian Minister of Agriculture Yelena Skrynnik and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
"Meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, Baucus pushed for Russia to reevaluate the positions it has taken on Syria and Iran. He asked what steps Russia is willing to take to halt the violence in Syria, given that every effort to date has failed, and discussed Russia's response to Iran's nuclear program," his office said Tuesday. There was no word about Lavrov's response to those questions.
Now that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has lifted his hold on Obama confidant Mark Lippert to become the next top Pentagon official for Asia, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has stepped in with a hold of his own, over the issue of selling F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan.
"Earlier today Senator Cornyn placed a hold on the nomination of Mark W. Lippert, a former aide to President Obama, to be assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs," said Cornyn spokesman Drew Brandewie. "In November Senator Cornyn sent a letter to the president requesting a plan to address Taiwan's aging fleet of fighter jets. The administration finally responded yesterday, but failed to adequately address Senator Cornyn's underlying concern."
The Lippert hold, first reported by the Washington Free Beacon, is not the first time Cornyn has used his power to hold nominees to press his advocacy for selling F-16s to Taiwan. Last July, Cornyn held up the nomination of Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed to make a decision on selling the fighter plane to Taiwan.
In October, the administration decided to sell Taiwan upgrade packages for its aging fleet of F-15 A/B model planes but the administration never said whether it would sell Taiwan the newer, more advanced planes, claiming it is still under consideration.
At Lippert's November confirmation hearing, Cornyn pressed Lippert on the issue (watch the video here) and then introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that seeks to force the administration to sell Taiwan new F-16s. That amendment had been voted down in the Senate once before.
Cornyn then wrote a letter threatening to hold the Lippert nomination unless he gets some satisfaction on the issue.
"I remain disappointed by your de facto denial of Taiwan's request to 66 new F-16 C/D fighter aircraft, and I believe it sends a damaging message to nations in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond that the U.S. is willing to abandon our friends in the face of Communist China's intimidation tactics," Cornyn wrote. "I hope to be able to support the confirmation of this nominee [Lippert]. However, I ask that you decide on a near term course of action to address Taiwan's looming fighter shortfall and provide me with the specific actions you plan to take."
In the administration's Feb. 16 response to Cornyn, acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller wrote, "We believe the F-16 A/B upgrade effectively meets Taiwan's current needs."
Miller would be Lippert's boss at OSD if Lippert does eventually get confirmed. Miller also faces a confirmation vote in the Senate as he seeks to permanently replace the now-departed Michèle Flournoy.
Fifty-six leading conservative foreign-policy experts wrote an open letter Friday to U.S. President Barack Obama calling on him to directly aid the Syrian opposition and protect the lives of Syrian civilians.
"For eleven months now, the Syrian people have been dying on a daily basis at the hands of their government as they seek to topple the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. As the recent events in the city of Homs-in which hundreds of Syrians have been killed in a matter of days-have shown, Assad will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power," wrote the experts.
"Unless the United States takes the lead and acts, either individually or in concert with like-minded nations, thousands of additional Syrian civilians will likely die, and the emerging civil war in Syria will likely ignite wider instability in the Middle East."
The letter was organized jointly by the Foreign Policy Initiative and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, both conservative policy organizations in Washington, D.C. Signees included Max Boot, Paul Bremer, Elizabeth Cheney, Eric Edelman, Jamie Fly, John Hannah, William Inboden, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, Clifford May, Robert McFarlane, Martin Peretz, Danielle Pletka, John Podhoretz, Stephen Rademaker, Karl Rove, Randy Scheunemann, Dan Senor, James Woolsey, Dov Zakheim, and Radwan Ziadeh, a member of the Syrian National Council.
The letter calls on Obama to immediately establish safe zones within Syrian territory, establish contacts with and provide assistance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), give communications and logistical assistance to the Syrian opposition, and enact further sanctions on the Syrian regime and its leaders.
The letter comes one day before the first "Friends of Syria" contact-group meeting in Tunisia and on the same day Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with EU High Representative Catherine Ashton in Washington.
On Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the government sponsored violence in Syria, but the letter argues that multilateral efforts to protect civilians in Syria have thus far failed.
"The Syrian people are asking for international assistance," it reads. "It is apparent that American leadership is required to ensure the quickest end to the Assad regime's brutal reign, and to clearly show the Syrian people that, as you said on February 4, 2012, the people of the free world stand with them as they seek to realize their aspirations."
Read the full letter after the jump:
A major new cybersecurity bill set to move through Congress this month would enable the secretary of state to condition foreign aid on countries' action to counter cybercrime and cyberespionage.
On Feb. 15, senators introduced the Cybersecurity Act of 2012, a massive piece of legislation that represents the culmination of years of work in Congress to put together a new regime for public-private cooperation on combating the growing threats on the Internet. The main thrust of the bill is to identify those parts of the private sector that constitute "critical infrastructure" and to charge the Department of Homeland Security with working with the private sector to institute and enforce higher cybersecurity measures for those companies.
But one section of the bill directly links cybercrime in foreign countries to U.S. foreign assistance to those governments.
"The Secretary of State is authorized to accord priority in foreign assistance to programs designed to combat cybercrime in a region or program of significance in order to better combat cybercrime by, among other things, improving the effectiveness and capacity of the legal and judicial systems and the capabilities of law enforcement agencies with respect to cybercrime," the bill reads.
It continues: "It is the sense of Congress that the Secretary of State should include programs designed to combat cybercrime in relevant bilateral or multilateral assistance programs administered or supported by the United States Government."
In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, Senate staffers who worked on the bill said that in addition to trying to build foreign countries' capacity to fight cybercrime, the goal is also to empower the State Department to use foreign aid as leverage to get countries to get active on fighting cybercrime and stop cyberespionage.
"There is a concern that some countries are not taking the issue seriously enough and we ought to do more to try to push them do so," said a Senate Democratic aide. "If there are cases where we are giving foreign assistance to countries that are turning around and being complicit in cyber crimes launched against the United States, maybe we need to take that into consideration as we are working on our foreign assistance package."
The provision was written by Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand (D-NY) and was based on a bill she had written with former Sen. Orin Hatch (R-UT).
"There isn't a mandate for State. It's not telling them they have to tie foreign assistance to countries' actions on cybercrime, but it's giving them a tool both to help build capacity in countries who want to do the right thing and pressure countries who do not want to do the right thing," the aide said.
The bill also calls on the secretary of state to work with international partners to ensure lawful behavior in cyberspace, develop a strategy for promoting norms in cyber behavior, and quotes Clinton as saying, "Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society, or any other, pose a threat to our economy, our government, and our civil society. Countries or individuals that engage in cyber attacks should face consequences and international condemnation. In an Internet-connected world, an attack on one nation's networks can be an attack on all. And by reinforcing that message, we can create norms of behavior among states and encourage respect for the global networked commons."
Another Senate democratic aide predicted that once the bill reaches the Senate floor, probably later this month, senators will try to add language that increases protections against products coming into the United States from foreign companies that have ties to authoritarian regimes or their armies.
It's what's known as "the Huawei problem," named after the Chinese computer technology company that just happens to be run by former high-ranking members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.
"What we call ‘the Huawei problem' is a really difficult one to get your hands around because it is the quintessential 21st-century problem where you have a global telecommunications conglomerate that is a commercial entity but has close connections to a very important nation state which has very sophisticated and aggressive cyber espionage capabilities and intent," another Senate Democratic aide said.
Right now the bill seeks to prevent purchases of any products that are believed to be compromised and there are provisions to protect the government acquisitions supply chain, but multiple senators are expected to try to strengthen the bill's approach to such companies through amendments, the aide said.
"That's a needle you have to thread because it implicates global trade policy and WTO requirements, but we've got to make sure that ‘the Huawei problem' is not overlooked."
A group of 32 senators from both parties unveiled a new Senate resolution Thursday that would establish the sense of the Congress that containing a nuclear Iran is not an option.
The resolution, which will be formally introduced later today, "strongly supports U.S. policy to prevent the Iranian government from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability and rejects any policy that would rely on efforts to ‘contain' a nuclear weapons capable Iran," and "urges the president to reaffirm the unacceptability of an Iran with nuclear-weapons capability and oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat."
A group of senators held a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill to explain the thinking behind the resolution and reinforce its bipartisan character, including Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Bob Casey (D-PA), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
"There are so many things that we disagree on, but we found something we can be united about and I hope the American people will take comfort in the fact that Republican and Democratic senators are joining forces to stand behind President Obama on one very important issue," said Graham. "We agree with you and we have your back Mr. President. President Obama is absolutely right that it is absolutely unacceptable for the Iranian theocracy to obtain nuclear capability."
Lieberman emphasized that he doesn't want to foreclose diplomatic options, but said that if Obama decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, he would have strong bipartisan support in Congress.
"I know that containment might have been viable for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but it's not going to work with the current fanatical Islamist regime in Tehran," said Lieberman, referring to Iran's sponsorship of international terrorism, its record of proliferation, and its statements calling for the destruction of Israel. He called containment of a nuclear Iran a "dangerous and deadly illusion."
Casey, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East Subcommittee, said the resolution is meant to address what he sees as a lack of clarity as to American policy regarding the possibility of living with a nuclear Iran.
"[The resolution] makes it very clear that containment is not good enough, that containment is not a fallback position here. If we say we're going to prevent them from getting a nuclear weapon, we have to mean it," said Casey, adding that there needed to be a greater sense of urgency on the issue as well.
Ayotte referred to the Thursday morning testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who told her that Iran represented a "grave threat" to U.S. national security and the security of U.S. allies.
Senators from both parties said Thursday that a diplomatic solution was still the goal and they believed the sanctions on Iran were working, but that a containment strategy was less preferable than a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities if all else fails.
"This is a deadly serious moment," said Coons. "We hope for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution, but we are determined to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability."
The senators sought to present their resolution as perfectly in line with the administration's stance. "I'm not here to criticize the president... the only thing I would say is ‘Do it faster if you can,'" said Graham.
What's not clear is what, exactly, would constitute Iran crossing the red line of achieving a "nuclear capability," in the eyes of the administration, or for that matter, in the eyes of the Congress.
"To me, nuclear weapons capability means that they are capable of breaking out and producing a nuclear weapon -- in other words, that they have all the components necessary to do that," Lieberman said. "It's a standard that is higher than saying ‘The red line is when they actually have nuclear weapons.'"
The resolution itself currently has 16 Democratic sponsors and 16 Republican sponsors. Behind the scenes, there were intense negotiations over the language to create a resolution that was acceptable to the broadest range of senators.
Graham admitted that an earlier version had included a clause, later removed, that would have affirmed that the United States has the power and capability to prevent the government of Iran from acquiring a nuclear capability. That clause was removed in order to build a bipartisan consensus.
"This is not an authorization for military force... if military force is the option to be chosen, that is a debate for another day, that is another discussion," he said.
At the press conference, Graham showed poster-sized photos of an Iranian missile in a parade with the words "Israel must be uprooted and erased from history" written on it. He then showed another poster-sized photo of an Iranian banner saying, "Israel should be wiped out of the face of the world."
"They could work on their grammar, but we all get the message," Graham said. "What we're all saying in a bipartisan fashion that we don't want to contain or contend with a nuclear Iran because we think the whole world would go into darkness."
On Friday, EU High Representative Catherine Ashton will meet in Washington with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss Iran's letter proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
At Thursday's State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that a more formal response from all the P5+1 countries would be coming and that Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman had held two rounds of consultations about the letter.
"I don't expect we're going to have a formal reaction to the letter before early next week," said Nuland. "What we want to do is not only react to the words on the page, but be in agreement about what the implications are for the potential for diplomacy further on."
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is leading a congressional delegation to Egypt this weekend and will meet with the head of the Egyptian military in an effort to resolve the crisis over the prosecution of American NGO workers in Cairo, he said Wednesday.
McCain said he will meet with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a man he has known for 25 years, but insisted he was "not Bill Richardson," the former New Mexico governor who has periodically served as an unofficial envoy, swooping in to foreign capitals to rescue Americans held by hostile governments.
McCain explained that he had no intention of demanding the NGO workers' immediate release or negotiating with the Egyptian government directly. Instead, he plans to express the seriousness of the issue to Egyptian military leaders and explain that the organizations are not sowing unrest, as they have been accused of doing, but rather helping Egypt develop civic institutions. He will also try to explain the congressional politics of the moment and the real possibility that Congress will cut off U.S. aid to Egypt over the crisis.
McCain said he realizes that the generals may not be in control of the situation and may not be able to solve the NGO crisis even if they wanted to. That opinion is shared by the State Department, including Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, as The Cable reported last week. That's why McCain is also seeking meetings with Egyptian parliamentarians, civic leaders, and representatives of liberal, secular, and even Islamic groups.
That analysis seemed to be reinforced last weekend when Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey traveled to Cairo and was unable to secure the release of the NGO workers despite meeting with Tantawi for over six hours. There's a realization in the U.S. government and in Congress that the Egyptian government can't make concessions during or immediately after a high-level U.S. visit because the optics of such a move would be politically damaging for them domestically, multiple Senate aides said.
McCain said the issue was probably being driven by Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
McCain is the chairman of the board of the International Republican Institute, one of the three U.S. NGOs affected by the prosecutions. The others are the National Democratic Institute and Freedom House. Several Egyptian NGOs are also being targeted by the Egyptian government.
IRI President Lorne Craner testified at the House Foreign Affairs Committee's hearing on the situation in Egypt Thursday morning.
"Taken in total, the events we are seeing reflect not only an attack on American democracy implementers like IRI, but more importantly, are the tip of the iceberg in an ongoing effort to silence independent Egyptian civil society voices that have been under increasing assault since last fall. The rhetoric employed by Egyptian authorities in doing so is increasingly reminiscent of Mubarak-era propaganda," said Craner.
"The announcement of evidence against those implicated in the investigation by the judges and public statements made by Egyptian decision-makers, including the minister of justice and Minister of International Cooperation Abul-Naga, appear to be a direct violation of Egyptian law."
Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) said at the hearing that the SCAF and the ministry run by Abul-Naga should be pressured on the issue.
"While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces bears ultimate responsibility for this strain in relations, the minister of international cooperation should not be exempt from punitive actions," she said. "This is not about 'sovereignty,' but about patronage and corruption. Therefore, no further U.S. assistance should be provided to any ministry that is controlled by the minister of international cooperation."
Ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA) urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to certify that Egypt can receive its $1.3 billion in military aid unless the NGO situation is resolved.
"Current law requires that, as a condition for the disbursal of military assistance to Egypt, the secretary of state must certify that Egypt is implementing policies that protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of association, and rule of law. And, although the law allows for a waiver, I cannot imagine the secretary could either make that certification or waive the requirement, as long as this NGO case moves forward -- and I would not encourage her to do so," Berman said.
The first confrontation over the aid could come this week when a transportation-related bill comes to the Senate floor. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is trying to add an amendment that would immediately cut off aid to Egypt, ahead of the State Department's certification.
At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday, McCain said that the Paul amendment was not helpful at this time and that he would fight to oppose it.
"I want to assure you that we are discussing that and ways to certainly avoid that action at this time," McCain said. He urged the administration to "explain to the rulers who are the military and leftovers from the Mubarak regime that this situation is really not acceptable to the American people."
His delegation, which will include Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and several other senators, will also visit other countries in the region.
The Pentagon's new budget request moves $3 billion of military pay and benefits out of the base budget into the war budget in an accounting maneuver experts and congressional staffers say is meant to get around legally mandated budget caps and bolster the administration's plan to cut the size of the Army and Marines.
According to the military personnel section of the Pentagon's fiscal 2013 budget request, released Feb. 13, the cost of pay and benefits for the military next year will go down by $6 billion in the "base budget," which is meant to fund the ongoing costs not related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in the war-funding section of the budget request, known as the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account, next year's request for military personnel goes up by $3 billion, even though the actual costs of paying for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would have no reason to rise as the United States withdraws.
What the Pentagon did was simply to move $3 billion from its regular budget to the war budget, where it does not count against the discretionary spending caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and where it does not count against the deficit.
It's a $3 billion accounting trick that allows the Pentagon to wiggle out of the spending caps by manipulating the war budgets, as it has done for years, said Gordon Adams, the former head of national security budgeting at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration, now a professor at American University.
"It's just too much temptation to resist," he said. "Just a little budgetary slight of hand, as DOD tries to create pockets of room for things shrinking budgets make it hard to afford. We've been pouring programs back and forth between the OCO account and the base [budget] for a decade."
Overall, military personnel spending in 2012 totaled $141.8 billion in the base budget and $11.3 billion in the war budget. In the fiscal 2013 request, the Pentagon is asking for $135.1 billion in the base budget and $14.1 billion in the war budget for the same accounts.
Adams said the administration is acting as if its recently released strategy, which would cut the size of the Army and Marines by 67,100 and 15,200 troops, respectively, has already been implemented. The actual troop reductions would take three years to complete and face stiff opposition in Congress, but the administration is trying to cut their pay and benefits out of the base budget now.
"It means pocketing savings from reducing the size of the force by taking them early in the base budget, while the force is only shrinking over three years," he said. "The administration clearly intends to cut end strength by 2015, but scoop out room in the base budget by the slight of hand of jiving the continuing payroll costs over into the war budget."
The accounting manuever does track the amount of money that would be saved by cutting the number of troops in the Army and Marines, as the new strategy envisions. In fiscal 2012 Army personal costs totaled about $53 billion, with about $7 billion in the OCO account. For fiscal 2013, the Pentagon is requesting $52 billion, but this time, $9.4 billion is in the OCO section of the budget.
For the Marines, the fiscal 2013 OCO budget request for military personnel would result in an increase of about $1 billion.
In response to questions from The Cable, Pentagon spokesman George Little confirmed that troops above the level envisioned in the new strategy would now be funded in the war budget, but he disputed that this was an abuse of the war budgeting mechanism or an accounting trick.
"Now that we have clearly identified a long-term end state level for our ground forces, we can more clearly delineate the cost of our current forces in excess of that level, and as a result we do have more funding budgeted for personnel in FY2013 in OCO than we did in FY2012... That is completely consistent with, not an abuse of, the concept of using OCO funds to budget for costs you would not be incurring were it not for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Little.
"People cost what they cost, and the total cost of all Army and Marine Corps personnel, base and OCO combined, is what it is. Even if someone takes issue with our categorization of those costs between the base and OCO budgets, our request to Congress is a comprehensive one that includes both base and OCO funds," Little said. "We are not hiding the costs, either in the base budget or the OCO side. The total size of the defense budget request is not affected by the categorization of these costs."
For military staffers on Capitol Hill, especially those gearing up to fight the troop cuts when Congress tackles the Pentagon budget, the administration is trying to have it both ways by playing games with the money and by shrinking the force in a way that can't easily be reversed.
"The real world requires a large force to meet insurgent threats on the ground -- the defense strategy only has room for a small force to deter neatly drawn challenges. The temporary answer seems to be to push the troops you need and the real conflict you are fighting off the books into OCO," one GOP congressional aide close to the issue said.
"Should the president decide to accelerate withdrawal from Afghanistan, there won't be room to pay for these troops in the base budget. Future presidents will pay for that folly in the years to come, but the troops who get shoved prematurely into the unemployment line will have to pay for it much sooner."
Russia and Iran are continuing to send arms to the Syrian regime that can be used against protesters, a top State Department official said today.
"Iran is resupplying Syria and through Syria has supplied weapons to Hezbollah," said Tom Countryman, the assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, at a Wednesday morning breakfast meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Countryman's bureau plays a major role in monitoring international compliance with nonproliferation and arms control rules. He declined to go into specifics on what arms Iran and Russia are giving the regime of Bashar al-Assad, but he confirmed that both countries are still supplying arms that can be used to attack civilians and opposition groups inside Syria, who are engaged in an increasingly bloody struggle with the government.
"We do not believe that Russian shipments of weapons to Syria are in the interests of Russia or Syria," he said.
According to Countryman, the Iranian weapons being funneled through the Syrian government to Hezbollah are not being used by Hezbollah inside Syria, but are being transferred to Hezbollah groups inside Syria's neighbor Lebanon.
Countryman also said the U.S. government is working with allies to try to get a handle on the stores of conventional, biological, and chemical weapons inside Syria, to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands if and when the Assad regime collapses.
There are "tens of thousands" of MANPADS - shoulder-fired missile systems -- in Syria and nobody really knows where they all are, Countryman said. Unlike Libya, Syria is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, so there is no official reporting on its store of those weapons, but the effort to locate them is underway.
"We have ideas as to the quantity and we have ideas as to where they are," Countryman said. "We wish some of the neighbors of Syria to be on the lookout... When you get a change of regime in Syria, it matters what are the conditions -- chaotic or orderly."
He also commented on the news that Iran has sent a letter to EU High Representative Catherine Ashton proposing a new round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 countries, a letter that Ashton has already said does not contain enough new concessions to justify a new meeting.
"This would be a good day for [Iran] to answer a letter sent four months ago," Countryman said, but what Iran really needs to do is open up fully to IAEA inspectors and directly address all of the questions about its nuclear program.
"There is a path forward where Iran can pursue peaceful use of nuclear energy," he said.
Former National Security Council Senior Director Dennis Ross argued in a New York Times op-ed today that the window for diplomacy with Iran is now open again because of the pressure wrought on Iran by international sanctions.
"The Obama administration has now created a situation in which diplomacy has a chance to succeed," wrote Ross. "It remains an open question whether it will."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden hosted a star-studded lunch at the State Department Tuesday in honor of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, with a Valentine's Day theme to boot.
The tables were adorned with red rose bouquets and the menu featured Chinese-American fusion creations by chef Ming Tsai, including a roasted sweet potato soup with crispy duck confit roulade, soy marinated Alaskan butterfish, and "eight treasured rice packet" with dried fruit and pork sausage. Dessert was a flourless bittersweet chocolate cake topped with cardamom ice cream.
In addition to Clinton and Biden, the roster of former and current officials and celebrities in attendance included Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brezinksi, Thomas Friedman, Chris Hill, Chas Freeman, Alan Greenspan, and Sens. John Kerry (D-MA), Dianne Fienstein (D-CA), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Bob Corker (R-TN). State Department officials at the event included Wendy Sherman, Bob Hormats, Kurt Campbell, and many others.
Your humble Cable guy's table included Amy Chua, the author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, former National Security Advisor Gen. Brent Scowcroft, Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, and State Department counselor Harold Koh.
Clinton opened up the event by alluding to the holiday theme.
"Because we so highly value our relationship and you're here on what we call Valentine's Day, which is a time that is for love but also friendship, and we are so delighted that we could invite many American friends who know China, work in China, have relations in China, here to this lunch honoring you," she said.
Biden joked about Xi's visit Wednesday to Iowa, where the future Chinese leader had spent some time living with a homestay family in the 1980's.
"Your visit to Iowa will ensure you more delegates than I received there when I ran for president," Biden joked. "And Lindsey Graham is happy that you didn't show up there in January, or you might have won the GOP primary as well."
Biden then got serious and talked about how the U.S.-China relationship "is literally going to help shape the 21st century."
He mentioned China's deteriorating record on human rights and said, "We see our advocacy of human rights as a fundamental part of our foreign policy and we see human rights as a key to the prosperity of all societies."
"We have been clear about our concern over the areas in our perspective where conditions in China have deteriorated and the plight of several individuals," Biden said, though he did not mention any dissidents by name. "We appreciate your response."
In his own speech, Xi said touted China's human rights record and promised that his country would continue to focus on the personal aspirations of its people. He did not mention any specific human rights achievements, however.
"China has made tremendous and well recognized achievements in human rights over 30 years since opening up," said Xi. ""The Chinese government will always put people's interest first and take seriously people's aspirations and demands."
He alluded to a "new and important consensus" achieved during his trip, without elaborating.
The mood in the room was friendly and many attendees who had interacted with Xi personally said that he was more personable and somewhat less guarded than his boss Hu Jintao. They said that Xi was being very careful to stay on script and not make any mistakes, but that they were cautiously optimistic the visit would establish some rapport between Xi and his high-level U.S. interlocutors.
The lunch began more than an hour late because Xi's previous meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, which had been scheduled for 45 minutes, lasted almost an hour and a half. Biden has met Xi before and traveled to China late last year as the latter's guest, but today was the first meeting between Obama and Xi.
In Obama's remarks after the meeting, he nodded to the issue of human rights when he said, "[W]e will continue to emphasize what we believe is the importance of recognizing the aspirations and rights of all people."
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Ken Roth, who met with Biden before the visit, was not impressed with the back and forth on the issue and wrote that the language the administration used was weaker than he would have liked.
"The Obama team didn't even
publicly mention Chinese dissidents by name, let alone meet with them before
the Xi Jinping visit. Bad signal," Roth tweeted.
"The Obama team already wasn't doing much for human rights in
Now it's not even saying much."
Biden and Xi also met this morning, and Xi met with some senior former officials last night for dinner at his hotel in Woodley Park. Tonight, Xi eats at Biden's residence before he takes off for Iowa and then Los Angeles, where we're told he will take in a Lakers game.
Xi made the final toast at Tuesday's lunch.
"I now propose a toast to the health of Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and to the remarkable development of U.S.-.China relations in the last 40 years and to even better relations in the next 40 years," he said.
The Syrian Ambassador to Washington Imad Moustapha has been missing in action for months. So where did he go? As it turns out, he moved to China!
Moustapha, who is the subject of an FBI investigation for his alleged role in intimidating Syrian-American protesters and their families, is still listed as the Syria's ambassador to the United States on the Syrian embassy's website. But on his personal blog Feb. 8, he suddenly announced he and his family had moved to China, in a post entitled "A Fresh Start from the Middle Kingdom."
"Now that we have moved to China, I plan to resume blogging about my life, family and friends in China, as well as writing on Chinese culture, history and art," he wrote in his first post since August 2011. "I have a feeling that this is going to be a wonderful journey of learning, exploring, and, most importantly, serendipitously discovering one of the most remarkable world civilizations. I hope you will enjoy my Chinese adventure."
Moustapha had been implicated in the Justice Department's look into Syrian spying activities in Washington, an investigation that resulted in the October arrest of Mohamad Anas Haitham Soueid, a Syrian-American living in Virginia. Soueid stands accused of working as an agent for the Syrian intelligence service as part of a conspiracy to harass the Syrian-based families of protesters and dissidents in the United States.
"Syrian Ambassador to the U.S. Imad Mustafa is involved in activities that vary between espionage, threatening Syrian dissidents, and lobbying and organizing rallies in favor of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," wrote Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Washington bureau chief of the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai, in June.
In July, it was reported that the FBI and the State Department's Diplomatic Security Bureau were investigating the Syrian embassy for using its diplomatic staff to spy on Syrian-Americans in Washington for the purpose of threatening their families back in Syria.
In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the embassy's information was being used back in Syria to arrest and even attack family members of protesters. Moustapha dismissed the allegations as "slander and sheer lies." But he stopped blogging and disappeared from Washington soon thereafter.
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford returned to Washington last week, not as a diplomatic punishment to the Syrian regime, but because the streets surrounding the American compound in Damascus became too dangerous. But if Washington wants to formally expel the Syrian ambassador to the United States, it will have to send that notice to him in Beijing.
Or the State Department can just leave a comment on his blog, since he seems to be using it again.
Ironically, Moustapha himself seemed to predict the currently unfolding events in Syria on his blog last March, when he wrote a post about the Egyptian revolution and the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
"What has happened in Egypt in the past month is something of great historic significance," he wrote. "The ramifications of this revolution will continue to unfold, and its impact will reverberate for years to come."
The State Department rolled out its fiscal 2013 budget request today, which contains several items that are sure to meet resistance when lawmakers roll up their sleeves and dig into the budget this spring and summer.
International programs don't have strong constituencies on Capitol Hill to begin with, and Congress has its own ideas for how to spend foreign aid.
The State Department knows all of this, of course, and has framed its fiscal 2013 budget request as a small portion of the federal budget that contributes directly to national security. State's $51.6 billion request, however, faces a GOP-led House that is searching hard for discretionary budget items to cut and a foreign-policy-minded Senate that wants to use aid to press foreign governments to act more in line with U.S. priorities.
"This is a moment of historic change around the world. They are also tight times for our government and for our people -- the two truths that have guided us from day one," Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides said Monday. "And so, as I'd like to remind you once again, with just 1 percent of the federal budget, the State Department and USAID will maintain our country's leadership in a changing world, what'll promote our values, jumpstart our economy, and above all keep America safe in 2013 and beyond."
Here are five of the items in the State Department's budget that will spark debates in Congress this year:
1) The top line budget numbers. The State Department and USAID requested $51.6 billion for fiscal year 2013, but $8.2 billion is categorized as temporarily needed funding for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan under what's called the Overseas Contingency Operations fund (OCO) account. The remaining $43.6 billion is the "core budget" request and represents a 10 percent increase over fiscal 2012 levels as enacted by Congress.
For fiscal 2012, lawmakers moved a lot of funding from the core budget to the OCO account in order to fit State Department funding inside the mandatory discretionary spending caps set forth in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Now, State is trying to move that funding back into its core budget so that it will have it whenever the need for emergency funding wanes.
In general, State prefers to use the OCO accounts when possible because Congress is more willing to fund programs that are needed in the current wars... and because the OCO account is off budget. ("Obviously, the benefit of the OCO account in general allows for all of you who report on this and for the Hill to look at the costs of our frontline states, to look at the costs of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan," said Nides.)
But outside experts see the OCO account, which has been used by State since last year and by the Pentagon since 9/11, as a slush fund. "I think OCO accounts are a scourge," said Gordon Adams, former national security director at the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. "Special extra accounts are a refuge for budget scoundrels. Funding for all three of those countries are going to be subject to debate and dispute."
2) Middle East Funding Initiative. The administration is requesting $770 million for this new initiative, which is meant to support U.S. activities in countries affected by the "Arab Spring." This is the largest single new program in the State Department's budget request, but there's not a lot of detail in the request about how the money will actually be spent.
Nides said it's impossible to predict. "The Arab Spring has come. We need to make sure we have the tools and the flexibility in which to fund these initiatives," he said. "I cannot tell you today where that money will be spent, because we'll be, obviously, in consultation with the Hill."
Some $70 million of that total comes from existing programs, the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) and USAID's Office of Middle East Partnerships (OMEP). The remaining $700 million is "new money," an administration official said. "We came to the Middle East changes without any resources dedicated to this in the budget," the official said, explaining that State has spent about $800 million since last year to respond to the protests in countries like Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, but had to cobble those funds together from other accounts.
"That will be controversial because there's no content. It's a contingency fund and Congress doesn't like to give State contingency funds," said Adams. "It's probably not a bad idea in theory but it is way too large for having no program."
3) Egypt military funding. The State Department is again asking Congress for $1.3 billion in direct aid to the Egyptian military. The $1.3 billion in military aid that Congress appropriated for fiscal 2012, however, has not been sent yet and might be held up for a while because of the escalating crisis concerning pending charges against 19 American NGO workers in Cairo. By law, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has to certify the Egyptian military is moving towards a true democratic transition before that money can be released and many top lawmakers are urging her not to do so. There are even bills to halt the funding regardless of Clinton's determination. Additionally, the administration is requesting $250 million in direct assistance to the civilian government, which it believes to be more responsible for the NGO crackdown than the military.
Nevertheless, the administration is hoping that will all be worked out by next year. "Our goal is, is to provide them those funds," said Nides. "I mean, it's obviously clear to all of us that we have issues that we need to work through. And we're working very aggressively to do so. But this budget reflects our commitment and our desire to fully fund those initiatives."
4) Pakistan civilian assistance. The U.S.-Pakistan relationship is in tatters, but the administration is still requesting more than $2 billion in aid to Pakistan. But in a shift from last year, the administration is requesting significantly less money for assistance to the Pakistani civilian government while increasing requested aid for the Pakistani military. That may seem odd considering that the Pakistani military and intelligence services have been widely accused of playing both sides in Afghanistan, and that Osama bin Laden was discovered hiding in a military garrison town for years.
Nevertheless, the administration is requesting only $1.1 billion for in Pakistani civilian assistance for 2013, even thought the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill authorized up to $1.5 billion each year. Meanwhile, the administration requested $800 million under the Pakistani Counterinsurgency Contingency Fund (PCCF), a reimbursement program for the Pakistani military jointly run by State and DOD, and State is requesting $350 million in foreign military financing for Pakistan, up from $98 million in fiscal 2012.
An administration official said that becuase Congress only gave State about $1 billion last year under the Kerry-Lugar program, that's about how much they decided to ask for in FY 2013. "It's still one of the largest recipients of assistance in our budget," the administration official said. "We have a lot of negotiation to do and we'll be making that argument that we can and we'll have to figure out with Congress what the final number will be."
5) Palestinian Authority assistance.
The administration requested $370 million for economic support funding for the
West Bank and Gaza in fiscal 2013, down from the $397 million given to the PA
in fiscal 2012 but still one of the largest U.S. assistance programs in the
budget. Congress is extremely sour on PA assistance, however, because peace
talks have broken down and because Fatah and Hamas are planning to form a unity
The reduction in West Bank funding is because equipment for the U.S. police training program there has been largely completed, an administration official said. State also cut the amount of direct cash transfers to the Palestinian Authority from $200 million to $150 million. "We think the economic situation is slightly better so we think we can do a little bit less," the official said.
What's more, the administration is also requesting $79 million for UNESCO in 2013, even though the U.S. government is legally barred from contributing to UNESCO because the organization admitted Palestine as a member.
"The Congress has prohibited us for funding UNESCO this year. And as you know, the president's also articulated -- and quite clearly -- that he would like a waiver to allow us to participate in UNESCO," said Nides. "We have put the money in the budget, realizing that we are not going to be able to spend the money unless we get the waiver. And we have made it clear to the Congress we'd like a waiver."
Foggy Bottom took a big budget cut in 2012, so the State Department is asking for more money next year while requesting more than $8 billion for diplomatic activities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.
The president's fiscal 2013 budget request, released today, asks Congress for $51.6 billion for the State Department and USAID, which the administration describes as a 1.6 percent, or 0.8 billion increase over fiscal 2012 levels as enacted by Congress in the latest appropriations bill. That $51.6 billion total includes $8.2 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations account, which is meant to pay for the temporary costs of the wars in Southwest Asia and their aftermaths.
The administration's request for the entire international affairs account, known as the 150 function of federal budgeting, is $56.3 billion, a $1.4 billion or 2.6 percent increase of fiscal 2012 enacted levels. The $8.2 billion being requested for the OCO account is about $3 billion or 26 percent less than the level enacted for fiscal year 2012.
"Even in tough times, this request represents a smart and strategic investment. The State Department and USAID are among the most effective -- and cost effective -- tools we have to create economic opportunity and keep Americans safe," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in her letter accompanying the State and USAID budget request.
"We know that this is a time of fiscal constraint and economic hardship for the American people. So we are seeking out every opportunity to work smarter and more efficiently. We have proposed painful but responsible cuts without compromising our national security mission."
The budget request would cut funding for global health programs by $300 million and cut the request for humanitarian assistance by another $300 million, Clinton wrote. Overall assistance to Europe, Eurasia, and Central Asia was cut by 18 percent in the request.
The budget request also includes $770 million for a Middle East and North Africa Incentive Fund -- call it the "Arab Spring" budget. It is not yet clear to what extent the $770 million represents new funding vs. the repacking of old programs.
We'll have more after a series of briefings...
U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford took to the U.S. Embassy Damascus Facebook page Thursday to explain the reasons for the closing of the embassy Feb. 6 and to offer new evidence that the Syrian regime is attacking civilians.
"First, like people around the world, my colleagues and friends are watching the video coming out of Homs and some of the other Syrian cities in the last days with horror and revulsion," Ford wrote. "I hear the devastating stories about newborns in Homs dying in hospitals where electricity has been cut and when we see disturbing photos offering proof that the regime is using mortars and artillery against residential neighborhoods, all of us become even more concerned about the tragic outcome for Syrian civilians." [emphasis in the original]
"It is odd to me that anyone would try to equate the actions of the Syrian army and armed opposition groups since the Syrian government consistently initiates the attacks on civilian areas, and it is using its heaviest weapons," he continued, in a not-so-veiled reference to Russian and Chinese diplomats, who made that very argument before vetoing the Arab League backed resolution at the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 4.
Ford also went into the reason behind the embassy closing, which he said was the most taxing day in his multi-decade diplomatic career.
"I left Damascus with immense sadness and regret-I wish our departure had not been necessary, but our Embassy, along with several other diplomatic missions in the area, was not sufficiently protected, given the new security concerns in the capital," he wrote. "We and those other embassies requested extra protection measures from the Syrian government, given the danger to both our citizens and the Syrian citizens that worked with and near us. Our concerns were not addressed."
Ford said he remains the ambassador and will work in Washington "to support a peaceful transition for the Syrian people." [italics original]
"We and our international partners hope to see a transition that reaches out and includes all of Syria's communities and that gives all Syrians hope for a better future," Ford wrote. "My year in Syria tells me such a transition is possible, but not when one side constantly initiates attacks against people taking shelter in their homes."
UPDATE: The State Department released a set of declassified satellite photos Friday as evidence the Syrian military is attacking civilians. Those photos can be found here.
U.S. Department of State
In private phones calls this week, a top State Department official has been sending the message that the Egyptian military leadership is not behind the recent raids on NGO organizations and the prosecutions of aid workers, including American citizens.
According to three NGO officials with knowledge of the conversations, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns has been calling around to various stakeholders to keep them informed on the ever-worsening saga involving charges against 43 NGO workers, including 19 Americans, who stand accused of fomenting anti-government protests in Cairo. Part of Burns's message has been that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took executive power last February after ousting President Hosni Mubarak, may not ultimately be behind the raids or necessarily in favor of the prosecutions that resulted.
"We are keeping the affected NGOs apprised of our efforts to resolve this situation," a State Department official told The Cable. "There is a vacuum of authority. We have been directly pressing the authorities in Cairo, including the SCAF, although they may not be the driving force behind this."
The American Embassy in Cairo has claimed in similar discussions that the SCAF was surprised by the Dec. 29 raids on several NGOs, including the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute, and Freedom House, the NGO officials said. The raids were reportedly conducted by Interior Ministry forces, not army soldiers.
The Obama administration has an interest in drawing a distinction between the actions of the SCAF, with which the United States has maintained a multi-decade alliance, and other parts of the Egyptian government, including the judiciary and the Ministry of International Cooperation, run by Fayza Abul-Naga, a longtime Mubarak loyalist suspected to be driving the effort to prosecute the aid workers.
For the NGO officials, the distinction is less important because they believe that the SCAF should exert more influence over Abul-Naga to stop the prosecutions and harassment of NGO groups, even if military leaders are not personally responsible for them.
"The SCAF is running the country, and whether they knew about the raids or not is beside the point. They bear ultimate responsibility for what is going on," one NGO official said. "She's the public face of this campaign and if they want to they can put pressure on her."
The United States' annual $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt is now under intense scrutiny in Washington. Many in the NGO community and on Capitol Hill believe the State Department is trying to defend the aid as a means of preserving what's left of the U.S.-Egypt strategic relationship, which has been a linchpin in maintaining U.S. influence in the region and the Egypt-Israel peace treaty.
Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman was dispatched to Cairo to confront the Egyptian government about the raids. He told the Egyptian media during that trip, "The administration has continued to make a very strong case for our assistance to Egypt."
That was before the Egyptian judiciary refused to let aid workers leave Cairo and decided to charge them with criminal offenses, including Sam Lahood, the Cairo head of IRI and the son of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jake Walles led a classified briefing for lawmakers on Capitol Hill Tuesday, after which senators who participated complained that they had heard no real plan to end the crisis. Those same lawmakers said the administration was working valiantly on the issue, but with no measurable success.
Lawmakers could propose legislation to immediately cut off assistance to the SCAF, rather than wait until the administration is required to certify that Egypt has met new, more stringent conditions placed on the annual aid package, but Congress isn't quite there yet.
"The Egyptians ought to know what they're doing charging and detaining Americans on what I believe are trumped-up charges is endangering the aid we are giving them," Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) told The Cable Tuesday. "We have a real interest in having good relations with Egypt because they have a central role in the region. On the other hand we can't just sit back and let them do what they're doing with the NGOs."
In a stream of statements Tuesday, a drumbeat of top lawmakers threatened to support withholding aid to Egypt if the NGO situation isn't resolved. "Congressional support for Egypt -- including continued financial assistance -- is in jeopardy," Lieberman said in a press statement along with Sens. Kelly Ayotte and John McCain (R-AZ), the chairman of the board of IRI.
"Yesterday's prosecutions are frankly a slap in the face to Americans who have supported Egypt for decades and to Egyptian individuals and NGOs who have put their futures on the line for a more democratic Egypt," Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Tuesday.
"This is not the way an ally should be treated. I believe that we should re-evaluate the status of our bilateral relationship during this transition period," said SFRC member Ben Cardin (D-MD).
"The Egyptian government's actions cannot be taken lightly and warrant punitive actions against certain Egyptian officials, and consideration of a cutoff of U.S. assistance to Egypt," said House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
"Continuing down this path will make it increasingly difficult for Congress to provide military and economic assistance to Egypt and for the Administration to certify legal requirements necessary for aid to move forward," said House Appropriations State and Foreign Operations subcommittee ranking Democrat Nita Lowey (D-NY).
For its part, the Egyptian government is projecting calm. In a news conference Wednesday, Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri said that the prosecutions will go forward. "Egypt will apply the law... in the case of NGOs and will not back down because of aid or other reasons," he said.
If the State Department truly believes that the judiciary and international cooperation ministries are solely to blame for the NGO crisis in Egypt, it's possible U.S. diplomats got that information directly from the Egyptian government.
At last weekend's meeting of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr professed that the executive branch in Egypt had no role and no influence over the NGO cases. "We are doing our best to contain this but…we cannot actually exercise any influence on the investigating judges right now when it comes to the investigation," he said, eliciting scoffs of disbelief from the audience.
Tuesday marked Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's first official visit to Washington in 18 months and he made extensive rounds, meeting with State Department officials and a host of lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In the morning, Lieberman met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the first time since 2010. There were no official statements made after the meeting, but Lieberman told Haaretz it was a "very good" meeting that included a lot of substance. "We are waiting for Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions and we express our appreciation for the support of Israel," he said. "We appreciate the very crucial decision [by the Obama administration] of sanctions against Iran, and we continue to monitor it closely."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday that the meeting spanned the gamut of issues, including U.S.-Israeli relations, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Middle East peace, Turkey, and Iraq... all in about 30 minutes.
"With regard to Iran, they talked extensively about the impact that the new sanctions are having and our efforts to work with countries around the world to wean them from Iranian oil and, obviously, our mutual commitment to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and to increase the pressure through these sanctions," Nuland said.
After Iran, the most oft discussed topic in Lieberman's Washington meetings was the new agreement between Fatah and Hamas, but Nuland said the State Department has not made a judgment on that agreement or what it will mean for the U.S. involvement in the region.
"They did discuss the fact that it's not particularly clear what this agreement will change. In particular, we still have President [Mahmoud] Abbas at the head of the government; we still have Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad responsible. And so frankly, any impact this may or may not have is unclear," she said.
That issue came up often in Lieberman's meetings on Capitol Hill Tuesday. After meeting with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman sat down with the triumvirate of Sens. John McCain (R-AZ), Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
In a brief interview Tuesday with The Cable, Senator Lieberman said the Palestinian agreement was a major issue for him personally.
"Surprisingly, we didn't talk that much about Iran. The conversation was about the Hamas-Fatah agreement, Syria, and Egypt," Senator Lieberman said. "It's very troubling. Hamas is still on our terrorist list and still committed to the destruction of Israel... If this agreement means that Hamas and Fatah are together running the government, then it puts in real jeopardy American assistance to the Palestinian Authority."
Senator Lieberman also weighed in on reports that Fayyad will lose his position. "Fayyad has enormous credibility in the U.S. Congress, he has more credibility than any other of the Palestinian leaders," he said. "If he's gone, it's a real step backward."
He also said the portrayal of Foreign Minister Lieberman in the press, which sometimes includes accusations of anti-Arab racism, are not accurate. "The reality of the Avigdor Lieberman is better than his portrayal in the media. He's a thoughtful man, he has a big world view," Senator Lieberman said.
The Israeli foreign minister then sat down for lunch with several members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee before meeting one on one with House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH).
In attendance at the HFAC lunch were Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), ranking Democrat Howard Berman (D-CA), Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Elliot Engel (D-NY), Steve Chabot (R-OH), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Ted Deutsch (D-FL, whose chief of staff is named Josh Rogin), Dan Burton (R-IN), Allyson Schwartz (D-PA), David Rivera (R-FL), David Cicilline (D-RI), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), and Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa).
"We share your deep concerns about Iran, and I would appreciate your thoughts on how much time you believe there is before Iran enters into a zone of immunity," Ros-Lehtinen said at the top of the lunch meeting, before reporters were ushered out of the room. "On Iran, do you think the U.S. and Israel are on the same page, with regards to how much time we have left?"
We were told by multiple staffers that Iran dominated the discussion at the lunch but Lieberman said nothing new about Israel's intentions regarding striking Iran. (The lawmakers also served Lieberman a lunch of couscous and chick peas, traditional Middle Eastern fare, which struck some as odd considering he can probably get better versions of both foods at home.)
"Foreign Minister Lieberman made very clear the serious and present danger Iran presents to Israel, the region, and the world," Berman said in a statement. "It was clear that the Israeli government has not taken any option off the table vis-à-vis Iran."
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has lifted his hold on the nomination of Obama confidant Mark Lippert to become the next top Pentagon official for Asia.
Last October, President Obama nominated Lippert to be the next assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, replacing Gen. Chip Gregson. In December, McCain wrote to Lippert to demand answers on the latter's alleged internal feud with Gen. Jim Jones when they both worked at the National Security Council (NSC).
"In several passages of his book Obama's Wars, published in 2010, Bob Woodward discusses your official relationship with [National Security Advisor] General James L. Jones and offers a disturbing portrayal of your actions that could be described as arrogant and disloyal," McCain wrote to Lippert in December, in a letter obtained by The Cable.
"Your actions while working at the NSC are an important indicator of your fundamental qualification to carry out the duties of the critically important position for which you have been nominated," McCain wrote.
He then listed 21 specific questions for Lippert to answer in written form, dealing with almost every juicy anecdote related to White House infighting found in Woodward's book. McCain wanted to know exactly how Lippert interacted with Jones and with political advisors at the White House. He also wanted to know if Jones had power over Lippert -- or if it was the other way around.
Today, an aide to McCain confirmed to The Cable that the hold had been removed.
"Senator McCain examined Mr. Lippert's answers to his questions and lifted the hold," the aide said.
The Lippert nomination now goes to the Senate floor, where it could sit a while because all nominations are stalled due to Republican anger at the administration's recess appointment of Robert Cordray to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Lippert was one of Obama's earliest and closest advisors on foreign policy, having been with the president since his days as a senator. He was a key figure in Obama's presidential campaign and served as chief of staff of the NSC, a position that had not existed in George W. Bush's administration but which Obama resurrected in 2009.
If confirmed, Lippert takes over the Asia shop at the Pentagon for Peter Lavoy, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense who has been acting as the assistant secretary for some time. That shop is also losing another top official soon: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer is leaving to join the Senate Foreign Committee Relations staff as a senior advisor and counselor.
No word yet on who will replace Schiffer, but in the meantime his duties will fall to Dave Helvey, the principal director of that office.
"As the Senate gears up to consider this year's foreign aid budget, Michael's extensive experience as a senior official and former Senate staffer will help committee efforts to preserve investments that reduce security threats, open markets for American businesses, and create opportunities for American leadership," Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) told The Cable in a statement.
SFRC also took on another administration official recently, Alex Lee, a Foreign Service officer who is now detailed to the committee.
Lee recently returned from Kabul but has spent most of his career in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. He has served throughout Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia where he was head of the political section, Cuba where he was deputy chief of mission of the U.S. interest section, and most recently as office director for Mexican affairs.
"Alex's three-plus decades of service throughout Latin America will be invaluable to the Committee as we focus on this critical region," said Kerry.
Your humble Cable guy discussed the violence in Syria and the United Nations Security Council's failed effort last weekend to build international consensus on how to deal with the crisis on Monday evening's edition of the Rachel Maddow show with guest host Chris Hayes.
Take a look:
The Syrian people have the right to fight back against their government and the international community has several options to help them in that regard, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) said Saturday.
As the tempo and intensity of Bashar al-Assad regime's violence against civilian accelerates and the U.N. Security Council remains paralyzed, the United States and its partners are planning their next steps. As a press conference Saturday night at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, several members of the U.S. congressional delegation laid out several ideas under consideration for protecting the Syrian people.
"There are many different options as to how we can do that," said Kerry. "There are the early beginnings of a civil war taking place in Syria. And if the government is going to kill randomly, people deserve the right to defend and fight for themselves."
Kerry declined to specify what steps Washington might take to directly support the internal Syrian opposition or the Free Syria Army, the ragtag defectors who have taken up arms against Assad, but he warned the Syrian government and its supporters Russia and China that the United States would not stand idly by.
"Syria is not Libya," Kerry said. "But nobody should interpret that statement to suggest that it means that Syrian leaders can rely on the notion that they can act with impunity and not expect the international community to assist the Syrian people in some way."
He also insisted that there will be another round of negotiations on a Security Council resolution regarding Syria, despite the vetoes by Russia and China that followed last week's efforts to build world consensus on the way forward.
"I'm confident this will be revisited," Kerry said. "Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton and Ambassador [to the U.N. Susan] Rice are prepared in a competent way to embrace Russian and Chinese concerns, but not in ways that would undermine the ability of the people in Syria to have their voices heard or to be oppressed or create a longer stalemate."
He continued: "I think that balance can be found, I'm confident it will be found. There will be another shot at the effort but it is really important for Russia and China, critical leaders in the world today [to join us]. They have an opportunity in the next days to step up and were inviting them to do so. I hope they will join us on such a critical statement with respect to rights of innocent people."
Speaking at the press conference in Munich Sunday night, congressional delegation leaders John McCain (R-AZ) and Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) laid out more specific ideas on how the international community can help the people of Syria.
"There's a lot we can do to provide moral support and to provide material support, along with Turkey and other nations, in assisting these people with medical care and other assistance," McCain said. "I do not know how Russia and China can represent themselves as members of the world community and still oppose a resolution that would help bring this bloodletting to an end."
Lieberman said he hopes some sense could be talked to the Russians and the Chinese and that the Security Council would work on another resolution.
"But if that doesn't work I don't think we can just stand by. I hope the international community and the U.S. will provide assistance to the Syrian Free Army in the various ways we can. I hope we will work with Turkey and Jordan to create safe havens on the borders of those two countries with Syria," Lieberman said. "What's happening in Syria today is exactly what we got involve in Libya to stop from happening.... I understand Syria is more complicated, but one choice we don't have is just to stand back and let the government kill people who are fighting for their own freedom."
Speaking on Monday in Bulgaria, Clinton laid out the most specific ideas to date about how the Obama administration plans to move forward on the issue.
"So what do we do? Well, faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people's right to have a better future. We have to increase diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime and work to convince those people around President Assad that he must go, and that there has to be a recognition of that and a new start to try to form a government that will represent all of the people of Syria," she said.
The Obama administration will seek new regional and international sanctions against Syria and will try to expose those who are still funding and arming the regime, Clinton said. She also promised to increase contacts with the Syrian opposition and provide humanitarian relief to the Syrian people.
Clinton didn't, however, promise another run at the Security Council, indicating only that more diplomatic efforts were on the way.
"Over the coming days, I will be consulting closely with our allies and partners in Europe, in the Arab League, and around the world," she said. "So we will be consulting with the foreign minister here and others about what we can do to rescue this deteriorating situation before it's too late."
Now that Russia and China have vetoed the U.N. Security Council resolution on the violence in Syria, what does the international community intend to do next and how will the situation play out? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said just now there's no way to know.
"We don't know what the endgame will be until we start the game," Clinton said at a press conference at the 2012 Munich Security Conference, just minutes before Russia and China killed the resolution put forth by Morocco and supported by the United States and several other security council members. "Asking what the end game is can't be answered until we actually start to bring about the changes that we think will be beneficial."
Clinton warned that more violence would be in the offing if the security council was not able to act immediately.
"The endgame, in the absence of us acting together as the international community, is civil war," she said. "The potential endgames, if we are serious about putting this kind of international pressure on the Assad regime, making it clear to the opposition that they should pursue their changes in a peaceful manner, is the possibility of the beginning of a transition."
Clinton said in the best case scenario, the situation in Syrian could be "similar to what we see now in Yemen."
"They (in Yemen) are going to have an election. They are going to have a chance to at least try to move forward," Clinton said.
She added that "military intervention has been absolutely ruled out and we have made that clear from the very beginning."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained about the lack of a clear post-resolution strategy for Syria in his remarks in Munich Saturday morning. He said clearly that without further changes to the resolution, Russia would use its veto power.
"We asked the Americans and the Europeans, ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well, in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said. "It's not a serious policy."
Despite those comments, Clinton expressed hope the resolution would pass - just before it failed.
"The draft on the table being considered as I speak gives full backing to a Syrian led process that will benefit the region and the world, and give the Syrian people the chance they deserve. We should act now," Clinton said at the Saturday press conference just before the vote.
Clinton said that during her long meeting with Lavrov Saturday, she told him she was willing to try to find ways to bridge the gaps between the draft resolution and Russian concerns. But following the meeting, it became increasingly clear there was no way to find consensus, so the U.S. and its allies decided to move ahead.
"I thought that there might be some ways, even at this last moment, to address a few of the concerns that the Russians had. I offered to work in a constructive manner to do so. That has not been possible and we are going forward, as we said we would," she said.
Russia and China are now complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by the Assad regime, Clinton argued.
"It is difficult to imagine that after the bloodiest day yet in Syria, there are those who would prevent the world community from condemning this violence. And I would ask them, what more do we need to know to act decisively in the security council?" she said. "To block this resolution is to bear the responsibility for the horrors that are occurring on the ground in Syria."
U.S. Ambassador to the U.S. Susan Rice said she was "outraged" at Russia and China's stance and Rice called the opposition to the resolution a "cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people."
MUNICH - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave opposing public speeches Saturday on what should be done in Syria, and then took their dispute behind closed doors in a heated bilateral meeting, in advance of Saturday's U.N. Security Council action in New York.
"As a tyrant in Damascus brutalizes his own people, the U.S. and Europe stand shoulder to shoulder," Clinton said in her speech at the 2012 Munich Security Conference. "We are united, alongside the Arab League, in demanding an end to the bloodshed and a democratic future for Syria. And we are hopeful that at 10 AM eastern standard time in New York, the security council will express the will of the international community."
Well, the 10 AM deadline has come and gone, but State Department officials insist the U.S. is committed to holding a vote on the latest draft resolution on the situation on Syria today, despite persistent Russian concerns over the text, which were outlined by Lavrov in his speech only minutes after Clinton left the stage.
Lavrov said that Russia stands by the Syrian people but not the "armed groups" in Syria that he alleged were contributing to the violence. He said Russia would not agree to any resolution that amounts to outside interference or presupposes the political outcome in Syria other than supporting a dialogue between the two sides.
"The problem is, the peaceful protesters have our full support, but they are being used by the armed groups, who create trouble. And this is reaching quite dangerous proportions," Lavrov said.
Lavrov said Russia had two main problems with the current draft of the resolution. He said the current draft resolution "left the door open to military intervention to the outside," because it does not include a Russian drafted statement that would explicitly say a military intervention is not authorized.
He also said the draft resolution seeks to prejudge the results of a national Syrian dialogue because it refers to the Arab League Initiative's report and says the process should follow the Arab's League's schedule for resolution of the transition of power in Syria.
"If this resolution is adopted and Assad doesn't go, we asked the Americans and the Europeans ‘What is the game plan?' They say, ‘Well in 15 days we'll consider this issue again in the security council.' My question is, ‘After that, what are you going to propose?" Lavrov said.
"It's not a serious policy," he insisted.
Lavrov heavily criticized the Arab League monitoring mission and defended Russian arms sales to the Syrian regime, which continue to this day. Lavrov said the U.N. charter does not allow interference in internal domestic affairs and that without Russian support, any plan devised in the security council would not be viable.
The Cable asked Lavrov whether Russia was concerned about ending up on the wrong side of history in Russia by supporting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
"We are not friends or allies of Assad," Lavrov responded, "We try to stick to our responsibilities as permanent members of the security council and the security council doesn't by definition engage in the internal affairs of states, it's about maintaining international peace and security."
The Cable followed Lavrov out of the conference hall and into his bilateral meeting with Clinton. Clinton was joined in the meeting by Director of Policy Planning Jake Sullivan, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher, NATO Ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
A senior State Department official said the meeting went longer than planned, 45 minutes, and two thirds of that time was spent discussing the U.N. Security Council situation regarding Syria.
"The secretary and the foreign minister had a very vigorous discussion," the official said. "The secretary made clear that the U.S. feels strongly that the U.N. Security Council should vote today."
The official would not going into the details of the bilateral discussion on Syria but said it's safe to assume that Clinton and Lavrov did not resolve their differences over the way ahead.
"Foreign Minister Lavrov did not dispute the urgency of the situation and the action now moves to New York," the official said.
MUNICH - At Saturday's morning session of the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta clarified that NATO forces will not stop fighting in Afghanistan in 2013, but he confirmed that the U.S. hopes to hand over the combat lead to Afghan forces that year. Many European and NATO officials in the room were still a little miffed they had to learn about the strategy shift in the newspapers two days ago.
On the way to Brussels to attend the NATO defense ministers meeting Feb. 2, Panetta made news by saying that U.S. forces will transition out of a lead combat role next year. "Our goal is to complete all of that transition in 2013," Panetta said. "Hopefully by mid- to the latter part of 2013 we'll be able to make a transition from a combat role."
On Saturday morning here in Munich, sitting beside Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Panetta made the same announcement again, but this time with a bit more nuance.
"Our bottom line [in Afghanistan] is ‘in together, out together.' As an alliance, we are fully committed to the Lisbon framework and transitioning to Afghan control by 2014. Our discussions included considerations about how ISAF will move from the lead combat role to a support, advise, and assist role as Afghan security forces move into the lead," he said. "We hope Afghan forces will be ready to take the combat lead in all of Afghanistan sometime in 2013. But of course ISAF will continue to be fully combat capable and we will engage in combat as necessary thereafter."
Prior to Panetta's statements this week, the only public milestone between now and the full transition of responsibility to Afghan forces at the end of 2014, as was announced at the Lisbon conference last year, was the Sept. 2012 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. surge forces, as announced by President Barack Obama last June.
Panetta's remarks this week place a new milestone in the middle of those two dates, by setting a public goal of handing over lead combat responsibility for the last geographical area in Afghanistan, known as Tranche 5, over a year before the full handover of responsibility is set to take place.
European officials here in Munich said they understood the reason for the new milestone, which is to give the Afghans some time to adjust to having the combat lead while NATO forces are still present in large enough numbers to help them out, especially if there are bumps along the road.
But several NATO and European officials were shocked and some were even a little miffed that Panetta had made a major change in the messaging over the Afghanistan war without giving them a heads up.
There are two different theories as to why Panetta decided to announce the 2013 milestone on the plane to Europe, before telling his NATO counterparts about it, despite that he was about to see them only hours later.
Some here in Munich think that Panetta simply spoke too fast and didn't mean to surprise his European colleagues. Others believe that Panetta wanted to announce the news on his own terms, rather than tell the Europeans and then have it leak out to the press, perhaps in an even less articulate way.
One high ranking European official told The Cable that his government was expecting such an announcement at the NATO summit in Chicago in May, not here in Europe in February.
"The feeling was, well we can't say the same thing in Chicago as we said in Lisbon," the official said, referring to the expected May announcement. "It was all carefully planned and now that plan is completely ruined."
European governments had told the Obama administration that announcing a new milestone for drawdowns in Afghanistan was politically difficult for them, but that they were willing to go along with it, albeit reluctantly.
"We said, ‘Okay, if Obama needs this politically, that's fine. But please consider the bad side effects for us. This is hard to explain to our constituencies," the European official said. "Before today we could still say the drawdown was conditions based. Now we can't make the argument that it's anything but politically motivated."
Panetta's main mission Saturday was to reassure European countries that the United States was not abandoning Europe despite the defense budget cuts in the U.S. and the American strategic pivot to Asia. He announced that a battalion sized U.S. military force would rotate to Europe as America's first concrete presence in the NATO Response Force.
"Our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other region in the world," he said.
In the question and answer session following his remarks, Panetta said that the Pentagon was not planning to implement the defense "trigger" set to go into effect in Jan. 2013, which would mandate $600 billion in additional defense cuts over the next ten years.
"Sequestration is a crazy formula," he said. "We're not paying attention to sequester. Sequester is crazy... If sequester happened, the strategy I just developed would have to be thrown out the window."
That's right, your humble Cable guy is on his way to Germany to participate in the 48th annual Munich Security Conference, one of the largest gatherings of national security officials in the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), and a large delegation of experts and lawmakers led by Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) will be at the event, which begins Friday. Other senators and former officials from Washington headed to Munich include Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Mark Udall (D-CO), Brent Scowcroft, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalizad, Kurt Volker, Dan Senor, and many others.
"It is arguably the most important security conference of them all," McCain told The Cable. "It's like Davos without the Hollywood aspect."
When McCain learned that The Cable will be at the conference, blogging and tweeting the whole time, he said, "Oh, no.... I'm going to call the German embassy."
Lieberman gave The Cable a little more historical perspective about the conference, which he has been attending for over 20 years, after first being invited by Sen. John Glenn (D-OH). Bill Cohen, who served as senator and later defense secretary, led the U.S. congressional delegation to the conference at that time. Cohen passed the baton to McCain when he left the Senate, and McCain invited Lieberman to be the co-leader of the delegation to give it a bipartisan character.
"For decades, it has been an occasion to discuss critical issues in the U.S.-European alliance. In the past 10 or 15 years it really has been broadened," Lieberman said. Defense ministers and foreign ministers from just about every NATO country attend and recently more and more heads of state are showing up as well, he said.
Among the foreign leaders expected to attend, in addition to U.S. and European officials, are Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali, and perhaps even Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The interactions with the Russian delegation are always interesting, Lieberman said.
"We've had some very eyeball-to-eyeball matches when President [Vladimir] Putin has come," he said.
The main topics of the formal conference sessions will be the effect of the global recession on defense budgets, what President Barack Obama's so-called pivot to Asia means for U.S.-Europe relationship, and the uprisings in the Arab world.
But a lot of the action happens informally in the hallways and in the bilateral meetings that take place on the sidelines of the sessions. Last year, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov actually exchanged the final documents of the New START treaty there.
McCain and Lieberman always plan one stop on the way to Munich. This year, they are touching down for a few hours in Madrid to meet with the Spanish government led by newly elected President Mariano Rajoy Brey.
It's a lot of foreign policy packed into only a couple of days, but watch this site for coverage of all the action.
"It's quick," Lieberman said. "We go Thursday and we'll be back Sunday night in time for the Super Bowl."
Photograph by Kai Mörk
The Russian government is following the path of the deposed regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar al-Qaddafi and is setting itself up for a fall from power, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
"You need to listen to what Russian leaders themselves are saying. They say ‘We are not Libya, we are not Egypt, Russia will not go down this road,'" Saakashvili said. "I've heard that from other leaders before. I heard it from Soviet leaders. And once you start saying those things it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and then you start to do certain things and to not allow certain things, and those are exactly the kind of actions that promote further sliding down this road [toward losing power]."
Not only is Russia denying the desires of its own people by suppressing protests and real democracy, it is now leading the opposition to the wave of popular revolutions that the world witnessed over the past year, said the Georgian president, who fought a five-day war with Russia in 2008. The latest and greatest example, he said, is Russia's support for the brutal Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad.
"Syria stands as a symbol," Saakashvili said. "[The Russians] fully identify themselves with Libya but they thought that in Libya they were a fooled into action. And now with Syria they think that if Syria falls, it's the last bastion before Moscow. And this is exactly the kind of attitude that will bring problems closer home to Moscow. It's not going to help Syria in any way, but it's certainly damaging Russia a lot."
The anticipated return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency later this year is significant because his term will be marked by opposition to real reform both inside and outside Russia, Saakashvili said.
"Unlike Westerners who think in terms of superficial symbols that he's returning, the middle class in Moscow knew that he never went away," said Saakashvili. "It's not about returning Putin to the presidency, it's about what he said. And what he said was ‘I'm returning because I should stop any attempt to reform and crack down on any mode of reform,' and that's what the middle class in Russia heard."
U.S. engagement with Moscow is useful and efforts to continue the "reset" policy should continue, but all the signals from Russia indicate that it is returning to a pre-reset policy, the Georgian president added. He made the case that Russia showed real flexibility during its drive to get into the World Trade Organization in 2011, but now that it has achieved that goal, its attitude has reverted to one of confrontation.
One example is Russia's constantly stoking the rumor that the United States is planning to deploy missile defense elements to Georgia, something Saakashvili said simply isn't true.
"Vladimir Putin is talking about this all the time. Either he is strongly misguided or he's looking for reasons to say nasty things," he said.
Just minutes before his interview with The Cable, speaking in front of a packed audience in the sparkling new auditorium of the United States Institute of Peace headquarters in Washington, Saakashvili contrasted the reactions of Russia and Turkey to the Arab Spring.
"Two radical different attitudes have emerged, offered by two specific regional powers. On one hand, the Russian Federation reacted with outrage and panic to the Arab Spring and tries to do anything they can to prevent any international support to the democracy movements anywhere. On the other hand, Turkey asserts itself as the model for the post revolutionary countries," he said.
"On the one hand, the government of Vladimir Putin desperately tries to hold back the progress of history. On the other hand, the government of Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan tries to embrace the revolutions of the world. Two very different prime ministers," he said. "It's not a coincidence that Russian influence is decreasing while Turkish leadership is growing in the region every day."
Saakashvili also talked about Georgia's struggles following its separation from the Soviet empire, and the lessons he might offer to new governments undergoing similar difficulties.
"Georgia's experience does not provide a transferable model for many countries that have known or will sooner or later know progressive uprising. There was no freedom textbook for us, and no textbook for our friends was ever written. The real revolution occurs after the cameras from CNN, BBC, and the others have left the country. It consists of the long and difficult process of reform that follows," he said.
"This is a lesson and a message of hope. There is no future for global powers playing against the will of their own people."
The Cable also asked Saakashvili for his opinion of actor Andy Garcia's portrayal of him in the movie Five Days of War, the 2011 film about the Russian-Georgian conflict.
"I only saw parts of it, but what I know is that my English was a little better than his and that was very reassuring," he said.
MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images
On Thursday, the Senate Banking Committee will officially start work on a new sanctions bill against Iran, and senators are set to add even more sanctions to the bill as it goes through the legislative process -- including measures that directly target President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Banking Committee will mark up the Johnson-Shelby Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Human Rights Act of 2012, named after committee heads Sens. Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), who will lead Thursday's proceedings. The bill will pile on more punitive measures against Iran's energy, shipping, and mining sectors, while punishing a broader range of Iranian government officials for their involvement in human rights violations.
President Barack Obama's administration is still working to implement the last round of Iran sanctions that was signed into law, which included the Menendez-Kirk sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran that were added to the defense authorization bill in December by a 100-0 vote. But the Senate has no intention of giving the administration a breather, and Thursday's mark-up is the beginning of a new and aggressive push to tighten the noose on Tehran and further damage the Iranian economy.
"Iran's continuing defiance of its international legal obligations and refusal to come clean on its nuclear program underscore the need to further isolate Iran and its leaders," Johnson said in statement about the bill.
The bill would sanction anyone who provides Iran with equipment or technology that facilitates censorship or the suppression of human rights, including weapons, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other riot control equipment -- as well as jamming, monitoring, and surveillance equipment. It also calls on the administration to develop a more robust Internet freedom strategy for Iran and speed related assistance to pro-democracy activists in the country.
The legislation would also formally establish that U.S. policy is intended to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and would require the administration to report extensively and repeatedly on its efforts to increase diplomatic and financial pressure on the Iranian regime.
Johnson and Shelby's bill expands sanctions to cover companies involved in joint ventures with Iran that aid the country's energy sector, targets any Iranian joint ventures involving uranium mining, authorizes the administration to target corporate executives of sanctioned firms, and requires U.S. companies to report to the SEC business they have with any Iranian firms that could fall under sanctions.
The Banking Committee bill is a scaled-down version of the Iran, Syria, North Korea Sanctions Consolidation Act, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), Mark Kirk (R-IL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Scott Brown (R-MA). The Syria and North Korea provisions in that bill were left out of the Banking Committee's version so there wouldn't be any jurisdictional confusion between the Banking Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee.
Several senators are set to offer amendments on Thursday to strengthen the Johnson-Shelby bill even further. Although negotiations are still ongoing, a list of the amendments in the queue as of Wednesday afternoon was obtained by The Cable.
Among the amendments that could be considered in committee on Thursday is an amendment by Menendez, offered on behalf of himself and Kirk (who is in Chicago recovering from a stroke) that would impose immigration restrictions on Ahmadinejad, Khamenei, and a host of other senior Iranian government officials. The amendment would also trigger visa restrictions on Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, although those restrictions could be waived for U.N. meetings in New York.
A separate amendment by Menendez and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), also offered on behalf of Kirk, would sanction banks with officers on the board of the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT), the organization that handles the bulk of international electronic bank transfers, if SWIFT doesn't stop processing transactions for Iranian banks.
Another Menendez amendment would require the Treasury Department to determine whether the Iranian National Oil Company and the Iranian National Tanker Company are tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If they are, those two companies would then be sanctioned as well, which could wreak further havoc on Iran's economy.
"This is a reminder that there are still more stones left unturned and there are still more ways to increase the pressure on an already extraordinarily pressured Iranian economy," a senior Senate aide told The Cable. "In bipartisan fashion, the Senate is moving to do just that."
Both leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee told The Cable that $1.3 billion of annual U.S. aid to the Egyptian military is in real jeopardy due to the Egyptian government's harassment of American NGO workers.
Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) and ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ) both said on Tuesday that a withholding of military aid to Egypt was now on the table due to the Egyptian military's role in the Dec. 29 raids on several NGO groups in Cairo, including three U.S. government-funded organizations: the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and Freedom House.
The anger in Washington at the Egyptian government reached a boiling point this week when it was revealed on Jan. 26 that U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's son Sam LaHood, the head of IRI's Cairo office, had been barred from leaving Egypt by the government, along with five other U.S. citizens.
The issue has already led to a divorce between the Egyptian government and its Washington lobbyists. The lobbyists said they dumped the Egyptian government over the NGO issue, while the Egyptian embassy claimed it dumped the lobbyists in order to save money.
Both Levin and McCain are set to meet with a visiting delegation of high-level Egyptian military officers next week in Washington, and they both said they will deliver the message that U.S. military aid to Egypt is tied to this issue.
"They should know that this action on their part jeopardizes a normal relationship between us," Levin said in a brief interview on his way out of the Democratic caucus lunch. "They know that, and that includes the impact it could have on aid."
McCain, who happens to be the chairman of the board of IRI, said in his own after-lunch interview that U.S. military aid to Egypt is "certainly a topic that [the Egyptians] have put on the table."
"It's hard to believe. IRI and NDI worked throughout Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and we helped them with democracy. They're like mechanics. They come in and tell you how to organize voters, how party registration works, and that kind of stuff. They're not advocates of anybody," McCain said.
McCain has been exchanging letters with his contacts in Egypt but there's been no progress yet, he said. "I've known [SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein] Tantawi for years, and many of the other members of the Egyptian military. It's one of the few benefits of old age," he said.
Freedom House put out a fact sheet on Tuesday, written by its manager of congressional affairs, Sarah Trister, which argues Egypt has not met the legal obligations for receiving the $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid this year.
"Per the FY 2012 State and Foreign Operations Bill, before the administration can release the $1.3 billion in military aid for Egypt, it must certify that the government of Egypt is ‘supporting the transition to civilian government including holding free and fair elections; implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association, and religion, and due process of law.' At this point, it is clear these conditions are not being met," Trister wrote.
Moreover, the Freedom House fact sheet made the case that Egypt should not receive the $300 million it receives from the United States in economic and social assistance, mainly because this money goes through the Ministry for International Cooperation, which is led by the Egyptian official believed to be driving the NGO harassment: Fayza Abul-Naga.
"The ministry that receives this funding, the Ministry for Planning and International Cooperation, is headed by a Mubarak holdover who has been directing the assault against civil society," Trister wrote, referring to Abul-Naga.
Reuters reported Tuesday that the Egyptian Justice Ministry sent back a letter from the U.S. embassy requesting the Americans trapped in Cairo be allowed to leave.
The Washington Post ran an editorial on Tuesday criticizing the Egyptian military delegation for being tone deaf to the seriousness of the crisis, and calling on President Barack Obama's administration to use the military aid as leverage.
"The generals regard this funding as an entitlement, linked to the country's peace treaty with Israel. They appear to believe that Washington will not dare to cut them off, even if Americans seeking to promote democracy in Egypt are made the object of xenophobic slanders and threatened with imprisonment," the editorial said.
"Preserving the alliance with Egypt, and maintaining good relations with its military, is an important U.S. interest. But the Obama administration must be prepared to take an uncompromising stand. If the campaign against U.S., European and Egyptian NGOs is not ended, military aid must be suspended."
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Top Obama administration officials briefed eight senior Senate leaders Tuesday on a pending deal to transfer as many as five Taliban prisoners from the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, to Qatar.
The Cable staked out the classified briefing in the basement of the Capitol building Tuesday afternoon. The eight senators who attended the briefing were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Senate Intelligence Committee heads Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Senate Armed Services chiefs Carl Levin (D-MI) and John McCain (R-AZ), and Senate Foreign Relations Committee leaders John Kerry (D-MA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN).
The identities of the administration briefers were not shared, but we were told it was a high-level interagency briefing team.
All of the senators refused to discuss the contents of the briefing as they exited the secure briefing room in the Senate Visitors' Center. But Levin and McCain both discussed the issue in question before entering the briefing, namely the administration's negotiations with the Taliban over transferring the Taliban prisoners into Qatari custody.
Levin told reporters Tuesday that the briefing was "about the ongoing Taliban reconciliation efforts." Levin is open to the idea of transferring Taliban members to Qatar, but said the devil was in the details.
"It depends on what assurances we have from the [Qatari] government that they are not going to be released," Levin said. "But I also think the Afghans have to be very much involved in any discussions and any process. They weren't for a while."
"We're not releasing them. As I understand it they will be imprisoned in Qatar," Levin continued. But can the Qataris be trusted to keep them behind bars? "That's the question," Levin said.
Levin said he didn't know what the United States was getting in exchange for transferring the prisoners to Qatar, where the Taliban are preparing to open an office. But he said the possible transfer was not a significant concession to the Taliban, provided the prisoners remain in custody. "If that's what [the Taliban] are getting, it's not much of a gain [for them], going from one prison to another."
McCain, talking to reporters before the briefing, lashed out at the idea that the prisoners would be moved to Qatar in a possible exchange for a Taliban statement renouncing international violence, as has been reported.
"The whole idea that they're going to ‘transfer' these detainees in exchange for a statement by the Taliban? It is really, really bizarre," McCain said. "This whole thing is highly questionable because the Taliban know we are leaving. I know many experts who would say they are rope-a-doping us."
McCain said that Congress probably can't stop the administration from going ahead with the transfer if that's what it decides.
"I don't think right now we can do anything about it, but these people were in positions of authority. One of them was responsible for deaths of several Americans," said McCain, referring to reports that the prisoners being considered for transfer include Mullah Khair Khowa, a former interior minister, Noorullah Noori, a former governor in northern Afghanistan, and former army commander Mullah Fazl Akhund.
Is McCain confident that the Qataris will keep the Taliban prisoners locked up? "No I am not. And the Taliban don't think so either, otherwise the Taliban wouldn't want them transferred," he said.
McCain said he was last briefed about the potential deal in December.
Some of the confusion about the negotiations was caused when the State Department's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman said on Jan. 22 that talks with the Taliban were a long way off and that no deal to transfer prisoners had been finalized. Grossman was in Kabul when he made the statements and he traveled to Qatar the next day.
On Jan. 28, several former members of the Taliban government said that talks with the United States had begun over the prisoner transfer. "Currently there are no peace talks going on," Maulavi Qalamuddin, the former minister of "vice and virtue" for the Taliban, told The New York Times. "The only thing is the negotiations over release of Taliban prisoners from Guantánamo, which is still under discussion between both sides in Qatar."
At Tuesday morning's open hearing of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Chambliss pressed Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director David Petraeus, and National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Matthew Olsen to confirm that the Taliban under consideration for transfer were still viewed as too dangerous to release by the U.S. intelligence community.
"It appears from these reports that in exchange for transferring detainees who had been determined to be too dangerous to transfer by the administration's own Guantánamo review task force, we get little to nothing in return. Apparently, the Taliban will not have to stop fighting our troops and won't even have to stop bombing them with IEDs," Chambliss said. "I have also heard nothing from the IC[intelligence community] that suggests that the assessments on the threat posed by these detainees have changed. I want to state publicly as strongly as I can that we should not transfer these detainees from Guantánamo."
Clapper said he stood by the original intelligence community assessments, which concluded that the Taliban prisoners at Guantanamo were too dangerous to be released.
"I don't think anyone in the administration harbors any illusions about the potential here," said Clapper. "And of course, part and parcel of such a decision if it were finally made would be the actual determination of where these detainees might go and the conditions in which they would be controlled or surveilled."
Olsen, who led the review task force that evaluated the Guantanamo detainees in 2009, confirmed that the 5 prisoners being considered for transfer "were deemed too dangerous to release and who could not be prosecuted," but Olsen said he had not evaluated those five prisoners since then.
Petraeus said that his staff had been asked for a more recent evaluation of the five prisoners and that the CIA completed risk analyses based on different possible conditions for the Taliban prisoners' transfer.
"In fact, our analyst did provide assessments of the five and the risks presented by various scenarios by which they could be sent somewhere, not back to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and then based on the various mitigating measures that could be implemented, to ensure that they could not return to militant activity," Petraeus said.
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